Isabel stayed overnight. He lent her a t-shirt and they lay down to sleep together, quite literally so. She rested her head on his chest and fell asleep before he did. Eli breathed her scent in, trying to forget about everything. He felt the warmth of her shoulders beneath his hand and focused on the even compass of her breath. It had been a really long day and he was tired.
The next morning he woke up and found her still asleep next to him. She was on her side, with her legs bent, facing him, just a few inches away, her cheek over one forearm, no pillow. Her hair was spread out across the mattress. He took a few moments to observe her, being able to stare at her shamelessly while she slept. Her features were quite simple, clean, symmetrical. If he had had paper and pencil close by, he would’ve drawn her right there, in that position. Instead, he tried to memorize her image, every line and shadow, each detail of her smooth skin, so he could capture it later.
He watched her for a while, set on recording her in his mind, until a sudden realization hit him. He turned to look at the clock. It was 7:45. He needed to get up now. As nice as it was waking up with Isabel by his side, watch her sleep with nothing but his shirt on, he hadn’t thought things through. How was he going to get things done with her there? He needed the bed for everything; he couldn’t get dressed in the chair, and there were other things, things he didn’t want her to see, like his bowel routine.
He was starting to panic when Isabel opened her eyes. She smiled to him and then turned on her stomach, lifted herself over her elbows and gave him a kiss.
“Morning,” she said.
“Hey,” he tried to sound normal. He probably didn’t because Isabel stared at his face for a while without saying anything. Would it be terribly rude to ask her to leave the room? Would she be offended? He didn’t want to have to explain things to her.
“What do you say if I go down to that little coffee shop around the corner and get us two hot cups and a couple of croissants?” she suggested smiling again and Eli let out air relieved.
“Great idea,” he smiled back. It wasn’t the chivalrous thing to do. It should be him getting her breakfast. But it did offer a nice solution to his problem. Was that why she had offered? Did she know he needed her out of there?
It wasn’t the first time he had wondered just how much Isabel knew or guessed about his disability. She had made a few comments that sounded like she wasn’t completely oblivious of things. He remembered the first time she had seen his spasms she had said “you don’t have to explain, I’m not that dumb waitress.” At the time he hadn’t thought so, but what if the reason he didn’t have to explain was that she already knew what spasms were, which could explain why they didn’t freak her out. And the day after Thanksgiving at her apartment, she had stated “I’m not completely ignorant,” now her words bounced in his mind taking a new meaning. Suddenly he had a frightful image of Isabel googling spinal cord injuries and their consequences. Perhaps it was naïve of him to think she didn’t know.
The second Isabel walked out, he hurried out of bed and locked the bedroom door. He didn’t want her to walk in on him while he was in the middle of things. Even if she had read about it online, which was really embarrassing, it was one thing to know and another one to see. He went to the bathroom first and used a catheter to extract his pee; then he returned to bed and took his clothes off. He put the suppository in and headed back to the restroom. Finally he went in the shower. He tried to hurry up as much as possible, but the truth was the whole ordeal tired and frustrated him. Transfer into bed, out of it, into the restroom chair, back into his chair, into the shower chair, to his wheelchair again, to bed and finally out of it dressed.
He unlocked the door and rolled out expecting to find her waiting for him; he had lent her his keys so she could get back in, but she wasn’t there. Eli looked at his watch; it had taken him an hour and five minutes to finish his morning routine, a record time for him, but still a long time. Should he call her? He didn’t. She walked in about ten minutes later. When she unbuttoned her coat, she uncovered a long shirt and leggings. She had left the apartment in the same red dress she had been wearing the night before, so Eli looked up at her surprised.
“They sell clothes at that small supermarket around the corner. Did you know they open at seven AM?” she said as an explanation and set some bags over the table. Then she walked up to him and kissed him. “I thought we could spend the day together but I didn’t want to have to go home and change,” she said and looked at him as if she was expecting him to say something.
“You look great,” the phrase came out wooden and she laughed.
“What?” asked Eli.
“Well, I was actually expecting something like “I’d love to spend the day with you, Is,” she said smiling. “Not all women like asking men how they look,” she added.
Not all women like asking how they look? What did she mean by that? That she was pretty enough not to care what he thought about her looks? He supposed she was. “Oh, of course I want to spend the day with you,” he replied stiff.
Isabel sat gently on his lap and kissed him softly. “Are you sure?” she asked in a low voice.
“Oh yeah,” he said sounding sincere now. She kissed him again.
They had breakfast and then went back to bed to watch TV. Isabel was hooked on a series he had introduced her to, so they watched two chapters in a row. At the end of the second one, Eli excused himself to the bathroom. The moment he transferred, his legs jumped in a spasm. He had resolved not to care about the damned spasms anymore, but then he remembered in fear he hadn’t taken his baclofen that morning. Shit. He took the pill out of the drawer in his night table and Isabel saw him do it.
“Did you do the stretching exercises this morning?” she asked. What, now she was going to start keeping tabs on his medicines and healthcare? He had enough of that with Matt. “Sorry, it’s just that you said it helped,” she said obviously regretting her own comment.
“Uh… yeah, it does, but no.”
“Why not?” she asked shyly.
Drop it, he thought regretting having told her about it the previous night. “It’s complicated,” he said.
“’cause I was here?”
“What? No,” he denied and softened his look. “It had nothing to do with you. I just hate doing them.”
“Oh,” she squinted at him. “I actually had you figured out for the exercise junky kind of guy.”
“What?” he asked not sure if he should be offended.
“Well, you look very sporty and fit,” she said without a clue she might be sounding offensive.
“Are you mocking me?” Eli couldn’t help but ask.
“What?” she asked surprised at him. “No, Eli. Of course not,” she said strongly and crawled over the bed to sit at the edge of it, closer to him. “You do look very fit. Look at your muscles and your broad shoulders. I figured you lifted weights or something,” she said giving him a look that seemed to beg him to believe her.
Eli sighed. She wasn’t trying to offend him; she was paying him a compliment. He was just being touchy.
“Oh,” he said. He actually hated lifting but it was in fact, the only exercise he did now, that and physical therapy from time to time. He hated that as well. “I do, but I don’t really like it.”
“You don’t like sports?” she asked relaxing now that he had understood she wasn’t insulting him.
“I do… I used to swim every day,” he told her after a moment’s hesitation.
“Really? So why don’t you anymore?” Had she really just asked him that? Wasn’t the answer more than obvious? “There’s a pool in the building, isn’t it?” she continued.
Eli stared at her. So he was touchy and sensitive, even paranoid since he was in the chair. He was aware of that. But really, who in their right mind would ask a man in a wheelchair why he had stopped swimming?
“You’re looking at me as if I were crazy to think a paraplegic person could swim,” she said looking confused. Dah! He thought. He didn’t nod, but he might as well have. “Paralyzed people can swim, Eli. Haven’t you ever watched the Paralympics?”
Well, of course paraplegics were able to swim, he knew that. He had in fact never watched the Paralympics. Had she? Anyway, he knew what they were about.
“You could still swim, like you can still drive and do everything else,” she insisted.
“Yeah, I know but…” he doubted. Technically, he did know he was capable of swimming, at least in theory, his physical therapist had suggested it many times. There was a pool in rehab, but he had refused to go in. He didn’t want to. What was the point? He had been a great swimmer, and now, what would he be?
Wow, it suddenly hit him he was one of that 93.7% of the world’s population Isabel thought were jerks. If he had met anyone in a wheelchair before his injury he would’ve behaved just like them. Even now he probably would. He actually remembered a quadriplegic guy he had talked to in rehab who had mentioned swimming to him and Eli had thought there was no way this man could ever swim.
“Have you ever tried it?” Isabel asked.
“No,” he admitted.
“Well, I think you should,” she said. It was cute when she was bossy to other people, but not to him. “We could go right now. I’ll bet they sell swim suits at that supermarket.”
“Are you crazy?” asked Eli. “No way.” Absolutely not, not in a million years. Even if he would ever consider going back in the water –it was not like he was afraid of it or anything- he would never ever do so in public, least of all amongst his own neighbors, people he’d run into on the elevator, or at the lobby, of course not.
Isabel stared at him silently.
“I didn’t mean to be rude. I just… I don’t swim anymore,” he made an effort to sooth his own tone.
“Ok,” she replied. Good, she wasn’t pushing it.
They spent the rest of the day at home and Eli managed to relax and enjoy himself. They listened to music, ate pizza, and even made out again. This time she didn’t push him too much. She was back to being patient. She let him touch her breasts again, but kept her clothes on. He felt like a teenager only making it to second base. She didn’t try to take his shirt off and only focused on his neck and earlobes as she touched the muscles on his arms and shoulders. At nightfall Eli drove her back to her apartment and they parted with a nice long kiss.
Monday morning Eli had an appointment with his doctor. Matt, as always, had insisted on coming along. He swore he bribed the doctor’s assistant or something because he always found out about his appointments. Yet, this time, Eli made Matt wait outside. He needed privacy because he wanted to ask the doctor about personal matters, meaning sex. Doctor Roberts had brought up the topic before, but Eli hadn’t listened. Back then, he was convinced he would never find a woman who wanted to date him, let alone sleep with him. So he discarded the conversation thinking it was useless and depressing. Now however, with Isabel in the picture, he was very much interested.
They discussed a probable solution for his spasms first, the current reason for his appointment. Dr. Roberts suggested a Baclofen pump, which was a little machine they inserted into a person’s belly in order to administer the drug directly into his spine. Eli found the thought repulsive. His body was already a freak show; he didn’t want a damn machine inside him. Although the idea of being spasm free did sound appealing, he totally discarded it when the doctor admitted he would actually be able to feel it when he touched his belly. In Eli’s mind that translated into Isabel being able to feel it, maybe even see it. He ended the conversation promising to think about it, but without really meaning it.
“So, was there something else you wanted to discuss?” asked Dr. Roberts once they closed that subject.
“Yeah,” Eli hesitated. Man, was this embarrassing. “I wanted to ask you if you could prescribe me with something to…” Eli struggled to find the words. “You know…” The doctor looked at him without understanding. Shit, he was going to have to say it aloud. “Have… sex,” he finally spat out the word looking away.
“Oh, so you’ve met someone?” Dr. Roberts smiled broadly. Eli thought that was kind of a personal thing to ask, but the doctor kept waiting for his answer, so he finally nodded. “That’s wonderful Elijah”, he congratulated him and then stayed quiet as if he was expecting him to elaborate on the subject.
“So, is there a pill I can take?” Eli pressed.
“Oh, certainly. There are a number of options,” Dr. Roberts finally replied.
He explained about oral drugs like Viagra and others of the sort, their effects and their effectiveness. Then he mentioned there were other possibilities that might work better for a person with his level of injury, meaning who had absolutely no control over that area of the body. It was an awkward conversation but Eli listened attentive to every word. Finally he suggested a drug called Trimix VI, which had worked really well for other patients of his with similar characteristics. He would have to inject it directly into his penis but it was supposed to do the trick.
“You won’t be able to feel it,” said Dr. Roberts reacting to Eli’s appalled face. Obviously, thought Eli. “I mean the injection,” the doctor clarified. Yeah, the injection or the sex, Eli finished the phrase in his mind.
“Ok,” he finally agreed to it and Dr. Roberts wrote him a prescription before congratulating him again. As he took the paper from the doctor’s hand, Eli thought he was lightyears away from actually having sex. He wasn’t even comfortable with taking his shirt off in front of Isabel, let alone let her see the rest of his crumbled body. He sighed.
He rolled out of the doctor’s office and found Matt flirting with the assistant. Matt backed off when he saw him and walked up to meet him.
“Have you heard of doctor-patient privilege?” Eli exclaimed outraged.
“What?” asked Matt not following what he was implying.
“You must have, since you’re a lawyer. I could sue that woman,” said Eli.
“I would represent her,” boasted Matt now obviously catching up and shamelessly admitting to Eli’s accusation. “And I would win. I’m that good.”
“Wouldn’t that be a conflict of interest, since you’re the one she feeds information to?”
“I’d find a way around it,” Matt bragged with absolute certainty.
“Yeah, I bet you would declare me mentally impaired if you thought you could get away with it,” said Eli.
“I have considered it,” joked Matt.
“You’re unbelievable,” replied Eli rolling towards the elevators.
“So, what did Dr. Roberts say? Are you going for the Baclofen pump?” asked Matt as they pushed the button for the parking lot.
“Why don’t you ask that woman?”
“Oh, don’t be like that, Eli,” said Matt dropping the playful attitude. “This is serious,” he stressed.
“Yeah, so is invasion of privacy,” said Eli still upset.
“What am I supposed to do if you refuse to talk to me,” Matt justified himself. “You made me wait outside.”
“Respect my privacy,” demanded Eli. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Matt looked at him narrowing his eyes. “It’s my business too,” he said after a moment.
“No, it’s not,” Eli disagreed.
“It is, man. You know it is,” Matt held.
Eli took a deep breath. Perhaps it was Matt’s business after all. If he decided to go through with the surgery, it would be Matt who would stand outside in the waiting room and, in case the recuperation implied him needing help, it would be Matt who would take care of him. He knew that. If his fate had been worse, if his injury had impaired him enough that he couldn’t take care of himself, Matt would’ve without a doubt, stepped in and cared for him in every way he needed. Thank god that wasn’t the case, but still, he couldn’t deny that fact.
“I’m considering it,” he finally relinquished. “I have to think about it.”
“What’s there to think about? Rose says it’s highly effective and the surgery isn’t risky.”
“The assistant,” Matt explained.
“Oh, does she?” Eli exaggerated his tone.
Eli huffed. “It’s a damn machine, Matt. It’s the size of a hockey puck. It would stick out in my gut,” he explained why he didn’t want to do it.
“Oh, so you’re worried Isabel would be able to feel it,” Matt guessed.
Eli looked away embarrassed. He should’ve guessed Matt would figure that out. He knew him too well for him to actually be able to hide things from him. Eli rolled ahead of him to scape his gaze. Matt grabbed the back of his chair to stop him. Eli hated that. He hated when people tried to handle his chair for him.
“If that woman wants to be with you she has to be able to handle these things,” said Matt visibly angry.
“That woman?” echoed Eli miming Matt’s condescending tone.
“Yeah! That woman,” Matt repeated rudely.
“Isabel,” Eli stressed the name irritated, “…doesn’t mind about those things.”
“Yeah I bet she doesn’t!”
“Stop it Matt.”
“Well if she’s so understanding, why isn’t she here?” Matt jawed at him.
“’cause I didn’t tell her about it and she didn’t bribe an assistant,” raged Eli.
“That’s what a person who cares does, Eli.”
“No, Matt, a person who cares respects the other person and just talks to them without going behind their back.”
Matt seemed to ponder Eli’s words in silence for a few seconds before replying. “That’s not even the point here, Eli. Can’t you see?” Matt lowered his tone and now he didn’t sound angry at all, but concerned. “The real issue here is why you didn’t tell her about it.”
Matt had a point. Damn him for it. Eli held his stare though, still angry. But as he saw Matt’s eyes, he felt the anger slowly fade away. At least he was talking to him as an adult and not a child this time, pointing out for the first time a valid point and not some groundless accusation. He wished Matt could just be happy for him and Isabel, but at the end of the day, Eli didn’t really blame him for doubting her. It was after all hard to believe a woman like her would be interested in him, to say the least. How could he ask him to understand her attraction when he didn’t understand it himself?
“Ever the lawyer,” he smiled to break the tension.
Matt relaxed his expression. “Lunch?” he suggested.
“Sure,” Eli accepted.
The next morning Eli woke up at 6:30 as usual. He had a busy day ahead of him. He was going to have breakfast with Isabel at that coffee shop near his office. From there, they would head out to meet his main contractor. Christmas was only a few days away and Eli wanted to get as much done before the Holidays because he was set on starting the construction in January. He grabbed on to the edge of the bed to pull himself up to a sitting position, but got stuck halfway there and fell flat on his back again. His abdomen was rigid. This was a spasm too, only not the shaking type, but the kind that made his whole lower body stiff as a board. He had missed his range of motion for over a week now, making excuses to justify himself, like it took too long and he didn’t have time for it; it was too hard to do on his own. The truth was that he hated moving his still limbs with his hands, it made him feel like a rag doll. But he should know better, this was the consequence.
He waited a minute and then decided to give it another try. He clenched the edge of the mattress and pulled but got thrown back down. Ok, thought Eli, I get it. I can take a hint. Time to do the stupid range of motion thing. He hugged his leg from underneath and tried to pull it up, but he couldn’t bend it either, the same with the other leg. It was as if all the muscles bellow his injury line were contracted into one long, stiff log. Eli sighed. Great, just great.
He was able to reach his drawer and take out the baclofen. Thankfully he always kept a glass of water on his night table. He gobbled two pills and lay his head back down to wait for it to kick in. Fifteen minutes later he was just as stiff. Eli tried to take even breaths to calm himself down. He was going to be late, because, of course, it couldn’t just take him 15 minutes to be ready to go like any normal guy. No, when his muscles finally relaxed enough to allow him to get out of bed, he still had to empty his bladder, stick a damn suppository up his butt, wait for it to take effect, make the whole transfer from bed to chair to shower chair to wheelchair to bed to chair thing he hated, before he could get out of the house. He had the whole day planned out, and he was under a tight schedule. Eli liked being in control. He liked to plan ahead, he liked knowing what to expect and how to solve things. But he couldn’t even control his own damn body.
He felt his breath fastening as he tried once more to sit up and ended in an uncomfortable inclined position, held up by nothing but the stiffness of his abdomen. He could’ve tried harder, lift himself up using his arms, but he was afraid to end up on the floor. Anyway he couldn’t very well sit down on his wheelchair while his joints refused to bend, so he just lay back down and kept waiting for the baclofen to work.
As he watched the minutes go by on the clock, in a torturous rhythm that was both fast and painfully slow, anxiety clawed its way up him. He started hitting the wood of the night table with the tip of his fingers faster and faster. He had felt this way the first days at the hospital. Not being able to move caused him the biggest anxiety he had ever experienced, he’d even had to be sedated once on account of an anxiety attack. Although he’d felt the same panic starting to rise a few times since, he had learnt to handle it. Now, he forced his mind to think about something else, focus his attention away from the fact that he couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t sit up, couldn’t move. He was starting to hyperventilate, he could tell.
He grabbed his phone from the bedside table. He wanted to call Matt. He brought his name up on the screen but then he set the phone down. He couldn’t call him. He had just seen a glimmer of the old Matt while they argued yesterday; his best friend actually looking at him like Eli was his pal and not some charity case. If he called him now that was all out the window, he’d go right back to over protective Matt, pity in his eyes. Man, he didn’t want to be alone, he felt so helpless. Isabel’s face appeared in his mind. Could he call her? He should call her rather that stand her up at the coffee shop, but what would he say? “Oh hi, Is, I can’t have breakfast with you because I can’t get out of bed,” he played the dialogue in his head. On second thought he’d rather be alone. His hands were shaky now, and he felt he couldn’t breathe. He had to consciously will every finger to type a text to Isabel. “So sorry, something came up. I won’t be able to make it for breakfast. Call you later.” He set the phone down.
Man, he hated this. His heart was pounding. His chest felt heavy, the air seemed thick and he couldn’t quite grasp enough of it. He opened his mouth to breathe in. He brought his arms up over his head, grabbed his hair and then threw them back down against the mattress hard. Shit, he felt the sheets wet under his palms. He usually slept in adult dippers, but had stopped using them since he was with Isabel, because most of the times he had it under control. Of course that depended on him waking up early to cath. Now he definitely couldn’t call her or Matt or anyone for that matter. He didn’t want anyone to find him lying on his own piss.
“Everything ok?” he read Isabel’s answer on the cellphone screen.
Peachy, just peachy. “Fine. Sorry. Call you later,” when I’m done lying on my own piss. He put the phone down again.
He held on to the edge of the bed and tried to pull himself once again. This time his whole body started shaking. He kept the position for a few seconds, his abdomen lifted up from the mattress by his arms; then he brought himself down and supported his weight on his elbows. He was still breathing heavily, the tremor shaking him from his abdomen to his pelvis and all the way down to his feet. He threw his head back and stared at the ceiling. Think about something else, why couldn’t he think about something else? Think about your building, you love your building. He opened his mouth to gasp for air. It was hard to breathe. Think about drawing, drawing calms you down, he bid himself. His sight clouded and he could feel his heart pounding through his chest. Calm down for god’s sake. This will be over in a few minutes, just calm down. But he knew it wouldn’t be over, not in a few minutes, not in a few days, or weeks or months or years, not for the rest of his life. It’s just spasms you coward, there’re a lot of people who have it worse than you, he scolded himself. You can’t let this bit you. You’re stronger than this. He used all of his will to steady his breath, taking small shallow gasps in an even rhythm. Think about Isabel. He pictured her face asleep next to him. He had drawn her that very night, when he was back alone in his apartment, eyes closed, her hair spread out across the sheets. He inhaled and this time the air passed through his lungs. Eli focused on Isabel’s image as if his life depended on him being able to remember every last detail of her. The symmetry of her features, the way the light bathed her face. A few minutes that seemed like an eternity went by. The shaking stopped.
He fell on his back exhausted, too drained to even attempt to get out of the wet puddle on the sheets. He lay that way for a while until he was finally able to move. Then he slowly, unwillingly, started to stretch his legs, one by one, up to his chin and down. When he was done with the range of motion, he took his clothes off and started the tiring ritual of taking care of his body and then getting showered and dressed. He pulled the sheets off the bed and threw them in the washing machine. Then he made the bed with clean ones. When he was finally done it was after ten. He couldn’t believe it had taken him this long. He hadn’t even bothered to call the contractor or Isabel again. They were probably waiting for him, but he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to do anything except maybe take a bottle of sleeping pills and not wake up for a few days.
He checked his phone that was still on the nightstand and saw two missed calls from Tom, the contractor; none from Isabel. He was going to set it back down and pour himself a glass of scotch, damn the hour, but then he picked it back up and dialed Matt’s number instead.
“Hey, Matt,” he said into the phone once he picked up.
“Hey, what’s up?” the sound of his casual tone comforted Eli.
“Are you busy?” he asked lowly.
“No, do you need something?”
“I was wondering if we could meet, grab a coffee or something,” said Eli modulating his tone not to worry Matt.
“Uh… right now?”
“Are you ok?” Matt asked instantly.
Eli took a deep breath. “I’m fine, I just…”
“I’ll come down to your office,” said Matt hastily.
“I’m not there. I’ll come pick you up, ok?”
“Are you sure? I could go to you. Where are you?”
“Home. But no, I’ll meet you at your office.”
“Are you sure you’re ok?” asked Matt. Bless him.
“I’m fine. I’ll see you in a bit,” replied Eli not sure he had convinced him.
He called Matt from the Lobby of his firm, only to find he was already there waiting for him. He waved at Eli with the phone in his hand. Another lawyer passed him as he was walking to meet him and stopped him.
“Are on your way up for the meeting?” the man asked Matt.
“No, sorry. Something came up. I’ll stop by your office later and you can fill me in,” Matt whispered as if he didn’t want Eli to hear. It was classic Matt to drop everything for him.
When he reached him, Matt padded Eli on the shoulder. “So, where to?” he asked, subtly examining Eli with his eyes like a mother would his child after a fall. Eli didn’t mind it this time, though.
“Anywhere,” he answered.
They drove to a small restaurant nearby and took a table by the window.
“What can I get for you?” asked a waitress in a cute uniform.
“Could you get me a scotch?” said Eli. “Please,” he added at the surprised look of the waitress.
“Not before noon, sir. And only with food. Restaurant policy,” she replied shyly.
Matt stared at Eli for a second and then turned back to the waitress pulling a fifty dollar bill from his wallet. He handed it discreetly to her.
“Could you bring us two scotches in coffee mugs, darling, and whatever you want to eat?” he said with a flirty smile.
Matt had this way to talk to women that just softened them. He was a handsome guy. Tall, well built. Dark hair and black kinky eyes, with a sort of bad boy look on them that women just couldn’t resist. The waitress smiled back at him and nodded.
“Don’t tell Sarah about that,” he joked looking back at Eli once the waitress was gone.
“My lips are sealed,” he promised.
“So, what’s going on?”
Eli shook his head. He was glad Matt was acting normal, or should he say he was acting strange because he hadn’t acted like this since before Eli was injured.
“Do you remember our first year in college?” Eli asked smiling. “We owned the world,” he said nostalgically.
“Yes we did brother,” Matt nodded.
“Where did you think we were going to end up back then?”
“Oh, you know, partner at the best law firm in the country; head architect of the top building company,” he smiled. Eli could tell Matt knew something was up with him, but he thanked him for pretending. “Did you think we were going to be president and chief of staff?” he jested.
Eli smiled. The waitress came back with their drinks, in coffee mugs, as requested, and gave Matt a flirty look. Matt returned it with a grin. Eli took a sip from his drink. He needed that. Matt did the same, waiting for him to speak out. Instead, Eli made another comment about their good old days and they went on to recalling funny anecdotes, people they had met back then, the teachers and their classmates.
They drank their scotches talking about their college days, laughing at old stories. The waitress brought them a second round without them having to ask for it and they laughed some more remembering the years when they had first come to Boston. By the end of the second scotch, Eli was feeling better. He was truly glad he had called Matt. He needed this. He needed to take his mind of things.
“It’s nice to hang out like this,” said Eli shifting in his chair. “I’ve missed this.”
“Yeah, man. Me too,” Matt agreed.
They asked for the bill and tipped the waitress generously. But before leaving the table Matt gave Eli an intense look.
“Did you have a fight with Isabel?” he asked finally, still using the same casual tone he would have a few years back.
“No, Matt,” Eli shook his head. “I was just feeling… nostalgic,” he offered as an explanation. His friend’s eyes ran through him like an x-ray machine, scanning him to decide if he should push it, get him to speak out what was actually bothering him.
“Well, brother,” Matt said after a while maintaining his relaxed tone. “We should do this more often. It’s a little like playing hooky,” Matt chuckled.
He didn’t go to the office after dropping Matt off. He took a drive to the gardens and drew for the rest of the afternoon. He didn’t call the contractor or Isabel. Instead, he looked at the tourists pacing around; couples that would stop and take pictures of themselves, happy. He looked at their legs and drew them; women in heels, men’s tall figures standing. A child passed him by running and Eli drew him too. He struggled to capture the movement of his legs as he bent them and lifted his feet to achieve a speed that was now just unthinkable to Eli. They might as well all be walking on the moon. The mere thought of it as unreachable to Eli as getting up from his chair and taking a few steps to stand next to them. They all seemed tall, so much taller than him, their figures stretching up into the air. He drew them as giants, all around him, himself in the center, small, hunched inside his chair, trapped.
When he finished the sketch, Eli felt a strange acceptance he hadn’t felt before. He was still sad, but he wasn’t anxious anymore, but calmed. He drove back home with his mind at ease and a certain quietness in his thoughts; watching the road pass him by while he thought about nothing in particular. He came up to his apartment and decided to call Isabel. He was dreading a bit having to come up with an explanation to apologize to her, but he dialed anyway.
“Hey, Is,” he said when she picked up.
“Hey. Everything ok?” She didn’t sound upset, thank god.
“Yeah… I’m sorry I bailed on you”, he began.
“It’s ok… You had me a little worried though,” she said in a soft voice.
“Sorry about that. It’s just…” he had made up a work related excuse, but now that they were talking, he didn’t want to lie to her.
“Eli?” she asked because the line was quiet.
“It’s ok, Eli. As long as you’re ok, you don’t have to explain,” her voice reassured him.
“I’m fine,” he smiled wryly into the phone. “Can I make it up to you tomorrow? Same time, same place?” he asked lowly.
“Sure. Looking forward to it.”
“See you then.”
“Ok, see you.”
Eli hanged up the phone and sighed.
He fixed himself a quick dinner and ate on the couch. He was doing the dishes when he heard the doorbell.
“Hey,” said Isabel when he opened the door and then she started speaking very fast without giving him a chance to reply. “I know I tend to hover. Can’t help myself, sorry. It’s in my personality. But I’m also not touchy at all, so feel free to ask me to leave if you don’t want me here. I won’t be offended. I swear. It’s just that you sounded kind of sad over the phone.”
Eli smiled at her. He felt like throwing his arms around her and hugging her tight, but he settled for reaching his hand out for her to grab. She did so and smiled back before following him inside.
“TV?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said and headed to the bedroom.
Once in bed, she cuddled up next to him and Eli held her body close. He liked having her there. She didn’t say anything and neither did him, which was perfect, because he didn’t feel like talking. He felt like doing exactly that, lying in bed with her by his side. They just held each other, not paying attention to the show on the screen.
“Is,” Eli started after they had been quiet for over an hour. “How come you’ve never asked me how I ended up paralyzed?”
Isabel sat up from his chest to look at him. “I’d figure you’d tell me if you wanted to and when you wanted to. I can’t imagine it’s an easy subject.”
It wasn’t. Eli found it rude and intruding when people asked him about it, sometimes as casually as if they were discussing what he’d had for lunch. He had never actually told anyone, he didn’t exactly feel like talking about it; but he wanted to tell Isabel, he needed her to know.
“Matt had just bought a new car, a Camaro, a sports car, real beauty. We were going to drive it over to Maine, just us guys, and spend the weekend visiting old friends.” He let his memory drift back to that day, as the words came out in a steady rhythm like he was talking about someone else, telling a story he’d heard somewhere and not his own. “We stopped at a convenience store before taking the highway. On our way out, this two guys came up to us with guns. They were just kids, didn’t look older than eighteen. It looked like they were on drugs or something. They were really nervous, like shaking and waving their arms. Matt gave them the keys. We didn’t put up a fight. Just take it, Matt said. One of them got behind the wheel but then we heard sirens. They were far away, they must have been going somewhere else, but the guys freaked out. The one who was already in the car drove away without closing the door, and the other one started firing. We docked but there was nothing to cover us. The guy was waving the gun around shooting in all directions and I felt a blow in my back like a big push and then a stinging pain, burning. I don’t remember falling down; I didn’t even realize I was lying on the ground. I looked back and I saw Matt over me, his hands were on my back but I couldn’t feel them. I couldn’t feel my body. Then I couldn’t breathe. That part is kind of in slow motion in my mind, Matt yelling my name as I gasped for air, and people running around me, and the blood spreading on the ground and I remember thinking, is that my blood? I didn’t really understand what was going on. I saw people running around me and then I heard sirens lauder and saw the flickering lights. The paramedics push Matt away and I looked for him behind them, it was hard to breathe and I felt like I was going to pass out and then I saw him standing there, and he was covered in blood, his arms and his shirt were red and I looked up at his face and he was saying something to me but I couldn’t make out the words. From there it’s all a blur, they put me on the stretcher, and I remember the ambulance, and so many voices around me, and then I must’ve passed out because a bright light woke me up and I was at the Emergency Room and then nothing again until I woke up in a hospital bed.”
Eli stopped and took a deep breathe before continuing. He turned to look at Isabel, realizing he had been speaking almost to himself. She was frowning, kneeling over the bed. She seemed to be angry.
“It took me a minute to get my bearings,” he tried his best to continue with the story. "I didn’t know where I was and then I felt so strange. I couldn’t feel my body, nothing beneath here.” He used his hand to show his injury line right at his ribs. “Then it all came back to me and I started to panic. I knew what that meant. I knew…” His breath had fastened and Eli struggle to regain the detachment with which he had begun telling the story. “Matt was there and when I looked at his face… He started saying I was going to be ok and not to worry but he was crying. I’d never seen him cry before. Orphans don’t cry, even as babies, Matt always used to say. But he was crying then, as he said that doctors still had to run some tests and that they were bringing in some specialist and that I shouldn’t be scared, all the while tears were running down his face.”
Eli stopped. It was what happened after that that was really hard to talk about. When the doctor had come; the next few days in expectation; and when they had finally told him, conclusively, roundly, no more false hope. But those memories were better left alone.
Isabel took his hand and tangled her fingers with his. She used her other hand to carress his forearm up and down. Eli stayed quiet feeling her touch on his skin. It felt like a long time before she spoke. Perhaps she was waiting for him to finish, but he didn’t want to say anything else.
“Did they get the guys?” she asked him finally.
Eli nodded. “The one who shot me was still a minor. He got eighteen months and rehab. The other one got five years,” he made a pause and swallowed hard. “And I get a lifetime like this.” He said the last phrase in a low voice, parting his amber eyes from hers again. He had said it to himself, not her.
She took her hand away from his arm and touched his leg. Eli looked down at his own body under her white hand. She was looking down too. Then she moved her hand across his thigh, through his belly and finally up to his chest. Eli squeezed her fingers that were still entangled with his and Isabel pulled herself closer to him and laid her head over his shoulder.
Eli waited for her to say something, but she didn’t, she just stayed there in that position, with her arm over his chest and their tangled hands. He didn’t know what he was expecting her to say, “I’m sorry”, perhaps, which was what everybody said. In a way he was glad she didn’t speak. Without planning for it, they both fell asleep and didn’t wake back up until morning.
This time, Eli woke up and found her staring at his face, smiling. He pulled her close with his left arm and she rested her head over his chest for a while. His alarm clock rang after a while and Eli pulled himself up to shut it off.
“Coffee and croissants?” she suggested again.
Eli shook his head. “I want to cook breakfast for you,” he said grinning. “But I need a few moments of privacy first,” he said, with the strange certainty that she was going to be ok with that.
She smiled broadly and kissed him. “I’ll wait outside,” she agreed happily.
He did his range of motion this time, took his pills, did the whole routine and then headed out to meet her. She was in the kitchen next to a fresh pod of coffee. When she saw him she walked up to him and kissed him again in the sweetest of ways. He cooked an omelet for her and they had breakfast together before heading out to work. Wow, he could easily get used to this, waking up next to her. She was wrong. She didn’t hover. She was amazing.